THE CHILDREN ACT
Director: Richard Eyre
Screenwriter: Ian McEwen, based on his eponymous novel.
Runtime: 105 mins.
Australian release date: 22 November 2018
Previewed at: Roadshow Theatrette, Sydney, on 14 November 2018.
When a court determines any question with respect to… the upbringing of a child… the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration. - Section 1(a), The Children Act (1989).
The Children Act, based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwen (he wrote the screenplay, too) and directed with consummate grace by Richard Eyre, has been screened at the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals and the British Film Festival so far this year and favourably received at all three. Now commencing its general release around the country, it will be interesting to see how it’s judged by a wider audience. Reactions might depend on the viewer’s gender because, as much as anything else, this drama looks at a marriage facing a crisis after 30 years and the consequences of that event. It certainly divided the ranks at the media preview.
The film opens on a Sunday evening in late June, in a comfortable apartment in Gray’s Inn in central London, where a professional couple reside. Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) is a British High Court judge, a demanding and life-consuming position that requires her whole being all of the time. Out of the blue, her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), a university lecturer, announces that he is thinking of embarking on an affair as the couple have not been intimate or made love for over 11 months and he claims, “I need it. I’m 59. This is my last shot. I’ve yet to hear evidence for an afterlife.” They are childless as a result of their commitment to their respective careers and Fiona’s biological clock has long stopped ticking. Not surprisingly, her reaction to her husband’s intention is cold and unforgiving. What is surprising is her absolute inability to discuss the matter; she only says that if he goes ahead with his plan, their marriage is over and he can leave. And he soon does, wheeling a suitcase out to his car and driving off into the streets of the city.
Just then, Judge Maye is assigned an extremely controversial case where she has to decide whether the court should intervene in determining the right of a 17-year-old’s choice to die by refusing to have a blood transfusion to treat his leukemia. Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) is a Jehovah’s Witness who’s been strongly influenced by his parents and church elders. He is bed-ridden in hospital and the judge decides to visit him to gain a full understanding of his reasoning before she hands down the Court’s decision. Their meeting is successful and it appears that Adam becomes influenced by ‘My Lady’ (the title he insists on using), especially when he plays Down By The Salley Gardens on his guitar. When Fiona sings the lyrics of the W.B. Yeats’ poem, they immediately strike a musical bond and ultimately an emotional one, as a profound message is carried in the poem in the line, ‘she bid me, take life easy’.
This is a complex piece of film-making that shows how strength and emotional detachment are qualities needed to make difficult decisions, but they come at great cost. It’s hard to maintain “the fixity of a pensive gaze,” as Jack says in one of his lectures. Thompson gives the performance of her career and Tucci competently portrays the frustration of being on the sidelines of the marriage. Credit must also be given to Whitehead, whose character, although forthright and claiming maturity, still evokes the naivety that goes with his age. The other members of the cast are equally strong, especially Adam’s father, Kevin (Ben Chaplin), who clearly explains his faith and the right to make such a provocative decision. There is some light relief provided by Fiona’s ever-attentive private secretary, Nigel Pauling (Jason Watkins), who’s like a doting aunt, always on call and carrying out his tasks with undying devotion.
The Children Act is evenly paced under Eyres’ confident direction; the beautiful, unobtrusive score by Stephen Warbeck and the slow pans and zooms of Andrew Dunn’s camerawork both reflect the measured lives of this bourgeois couple. Even faced with high drama, these middle-class feathers remain unruffled. This is a compelling, intelligent drama that asks some very tough questions. It certainly opens up debate on whether Tucci’s character was being selfish or if Fiona had closed off her emotions so much that the marriage was dead anyway. McEwen shows that by focusing purely on their own needs, people automatically disregard others, and successfully demonstrates that actions have consequences. It’s a class act.